Friday, July 11, 2008

Does knowledge enhance enjoyment of wine?

I once went to a lecture by an eminent philosopher who also happened to be a bit of a wine nut. The point of his lecture? He was addressing the question that I've titled this short piece with, and his answer was no. Now, I'm not an eminent philosopher. Actually, I'm neither eminent nor a philosopher. But I think he's wrong.

Why? Because of the way we taste wine. Our first experiences with wine are entirely at what is known as the hedonic level – that is, we simply decide whether or not we like what we are drinking, and perhaps how much in either direction. The next stage in appreciation comes when we have tasted a few wines, and we compare the current wine with our memory of previous wines drunk. We may also begin to associate descriptive words with the taste sensations we are experiencing. And we may add the factual information we have gained about wine into the mix.

So, as we build knowledge about wine (assuming we do), then our experience will be different, and has the potential to be improved. This is because the way we are appreciating the wine has not only sensory input that is of the moment, as we drink and sniff, but also recruits relevant input from our previous experience and knowledge of wine.

So our impressions of a decent Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon might start out with, 'Hmm, that's tasty', and then progress to, 'I like the rich blackcurrant fruit here', to 'Yes, that's a really nice Cabernet with a bit more richness and weight than Bordeaux Cabernet blends, but without the overt sweetness and mintiness of a Barossa Cabernet', to 'I reckon the winemaker did really well this year; it's better than his 2003 and he's toned the oak down a bit, using more French than American'. You get the picture. I'd venture that the person with more knowledge has a different taste experience to the total novice because of this knowledge, and also has the potential to enjoy a really good wine more, in part because they recognize that it is really good compared with the many other similar wines they have tasted.

There is, however, a caveat. And that is that I've seen winemakers who develop what I'd call 'cellar palate'. They know so much that they find it hard ever to really enjoy a wine. Trained to spot faults, often all they can see in a wine is the faultiness that they perceive. It's like the high-end audiophile who ends up not listening to the music, but the reproduction of the music by the sound system. And that's a bit nuts.


Blogger Steve said...

Jamie, I totally agree. Knowing what you're drinking enhances the pleasure. It's even more acute if you've been to the winery, know the proprietor, etc. Blind tasting may be an important tool in evaluating wine, but it does nothing to enhance the pleasure of drinking it!

July 11, 2008 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jamie, I'm pretty much in entire agreement with your rationale. The learning process, particularly for guys with a geeky leaning ;-), in which I am about as geeky as it gets, really enhances the whole aspect of enjoying wine. It's why I drink wine and not just anything alcoholic. Sometimes however the enjoyment of the wine itself can take you out of enjoying the situation in which you find yourself - such as a dinner around friends, or a party. Whether good (and especially bad), the wine demands of you (the ever attentive mind) to critique and form an opinion. So, in educating your palate, you are in danger of not enjoying the wine when wine really wasn't meant to be anything more than a pleasant way of enjoying alcohol. So that's one time when education might detract (albeit I'd argue the it didn't even need to be wine so maybe the point is mute anyway).

But in as well as the winemaker's faultfinding palate (an definite aspect of my wine experience), there is also the unveiling of some of the mystery of wine (such as terroir perhaps in some cases being nothing more than a provable cellar yeast infection). And it is here, and perhaps only here, that education might detract from enjoyment. So the author of the discussion seems to be a proponent of 'ignorance is bliss'. Well, I guess it's for people to choose the way they life their life, and if ignorance works for them...


July 12, 2008 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't see Kent Bach's (I assume this is who you mean) lecture but I have read the paper he developed from it and I think you are perhaps slightly misrepresenting his position. I think his point was not that knowledge about wine cannot be a pleasure in its own right but that it was not necessary to be able to appreciate an especially fine wine. I think it is similar to someone with little or no knowledge of art history viewing a great work of art. They are capable of having a more profound experience than simply thinking "that's a pretty picture". I'm willing to bow to your superior knowledge of pyschology but I'd suggest whilst knowledge about wine can provide additional pleasures when tasting a wine but that these are in some sense distinct from the primary pleasure of tasting that wine. Sorry, badly worded sentence, I'll try to illustrate my point. I can taste a wine and recognise qualities in it that others will appreciate without actually enjoying the wine myself - for example I personally don't like much Barolo (perhaps Pinotage would be a better example) but can distinguish between differing quality levels. Equally I can see the attraction in a cheap, commercial wine for its intended audience without enjoying it myself. There is a certain degree of intellectual pleasure to be gained from this but it does not mean I would ever choose to drink these wines with good friends and food. Therefore I think the most important experience when tasting a wine is that which you dismiss as simply "do I enjoy this" and that the it runs to a deeper level than you suggest and one which is unaffected by knowledge. Just my opinion though and it might not even be what the Philosopher was getting at.

July 24, 2008 2:53 PM  
Blogger Mihnea Mironescu said...

For those who enjoy such philosophical discussions on wine, I warmly recommend the book Questions of Taste - The Philosophy of Wine ( The book is a collection of essays written by philosophers and wine experts, of which both Jamie Goode and Kent Bach each have one essay proving their point. Enjoy your reading!

December 6, 2008 2:06 AM  
Anonymous Antij said...

Having neither read the article nor listened to the lecture, and also being a complete novice here to learn, I think the logical distinction is this:

It will "enhance" your enjoyment by giving it more dimension, but it will not necessarily increase your enjoyment of the wine. These dimensions may be satisfying in themselves, however, or they may be detrimental as you suggested.

Furthermore, based on psychology and anecdotal evidence, people are more likely to enjoy wines they are told are fine or expensive, so I imagine the opinion of many (not all) conessieurs is clouded by what they know of the brand or reputed quality or price. I just saw a forum repeatedly ripping on Yellowtail and how it is only reserved for us rubes...I can't particularly remember YT (because it is so much harder for me to remember tastes than the words I don't yet have) but I vaguely remember it being drinkable. (I suspect many of these people wouldn't know YT from a really nice wine in a blind taste test, but were trying to impress.)

If the knowledge will cloud my appreciation of a pleasant wine, there's something to be said for ignorance.

Regardless, I can't tell a Merlot from a Cab Sav from a Port, and I think it's time for me to learn!

May 16, 2009 9:27 PM  
Blogger Mihnea Mironescu said...

Antij, you are right on the money with your observation regarding the power of influence many external stimuli may exert on us, tasters. It's not only a good review of a wine, it's also the wine's label, the closure (does it have a fancy cork or a "mere" screw cap), and why not the bottle price. That's why the serious guys choose to taste their wines blind.

As for the importance of knowledge, I would say that apart from the cognitive pleasures a wine may give a connoisseur, knowledge allows for a better focus. In other words, if you know what you're looking for in a glass, it will help you to better focus on that particular aspect. And this leads to better perceiving the wine. Therefore, wine knowledge is good to acquire!

Good luck with your learning, it's worth it!

May 19, 2009 6:12 AM  

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